Canada’s empty north

Speaking of the north and Canada’s relationship to its north Macleans has an interesting article up this morning about how badly Canada neglects its north and how empty it is.

Our north is badly connected, inaccessible and sparsely populated.

How many Canadians actually live up north? Approximately 118,000. That’s one-third of one per cent of the national population. To put it another way, about as many Canadians live in Australia as live in Nunavut. If the entire population of the Northwest Territories decided to attend an Edmonton Eskimos game, Commonwealth Stadium would still have 10,000 empty seats.

There are many things causing this problem. Part of it is our lack of long-term planning and a general unwillingness to invest in transportation infrastructure. We are a big country that feels difficult to get around. If you own a car it’s a bit easier but those connections are best east-west and involve large distances. It’s easier to go to Europe than Halifax and even Churchill, Manitoba a tourist destination for polar bear watchers that can only be reached with great difficulty and expense. You can blame difficult terrain or you can blame our unwillingness to see connecting the disparate parts of our country via a high-quality multi-modal transportation network. The Dutch view transportation as an essential investment in connectivity and mobility. We can’t be bothered.

This should be no surprise. It is cheaper and easier (and usually faster) to travel almost anywhere overseas than it is to visit the Canadian Arctic. There is only one train to the North, travelling on tracks so old and so worn out, it can only manage an average speed of 28 km/h on its way to Churchill.

Seventy-four years after the completion of the U.S.-built Alaska Highway, there is still no four-season road to Canada’s northern shores (just promises there will be soon). You can’t sail either. Our only northern port, in Churchill, closed last month. Which leaves flying. But flights are few, and ridiculously expensive. Want to travel from Toronto to Iqaluit next week? $3,087. Khartoum? $1,500. Bangkok? $1,000.

It’s always striking reading about other northern nations and how many people actually live in cities that are quite far up north. In Norway, Sweden and Finland the are actual big cities on latitudes that very few Canadians will ever see or inhabit.

If you define this region as including the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, the shores of Hudson Bay, northern Quebec and Labrador, it contributes about $10 billion to the national GDP, or about one-third of one per cent.

By comparison, the Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden and Finland are each 1/30th the size of Canada’s, yet each of their northern economies are triple the size of ours. In fact, according to data collected by the Finnish economist Ilmo Mäenpää, the Canadian Arctic makes up approximately one-quarter of the circumpolar region, yet our economic production there accounts for less than two per cent of that entire region’s aggregate economy.

The article ends by noting that Canadians like to claim the north is important to us but really we just ignore it. We can’t claim to be a true northern nation when our north is neglected and empty, when we don’t invest in it in any meaningful way and when most Canadians have no way of getting to it.

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